I should have been on a train back home, hours ago. Instead, I was standing under the looming flicker of the departures board, weary of the word should. Suitcases packed, stacked and shipped, I had just enough to escape. I needed, more than anything, to escape. Sharp inhale. Dial.
“I’m going to Europe.” I announced. The words flowed breathlessly. The silence that followed seemed to stretch beyond speechlessness – I could hear the disbelief, the incredulity in the void. Then came the arguments and finally, the rush of acceptance. “Call us every day, okay? I mean it. Be safe. We love you.”
This departure from my ordinary life defined what I have come to view as a moment of triumph. Staunchly rooted in order and routine, quiet anxiety steadily mounted and just as steadily wore me down. It crescendoed to such volumes that it became unbearable to remain in the status quo. I knew where I should have been going, but I was still perpetually lost. Maybe it was fate, or maybe it was just well-timed marketing, but as I walked to the train station, suitcases in tow, an advertisement caught my eye: “Let Yourself Go”. And so, with saved earnings, a window of free time and luck with travel regulations, the question, rather than ‘why?’, became ‘why not?’.
Neither the tedium of airport bureaucracy nor the cramped seating dampened my lifted spirits. Not the type of person to pursue spur-of-the-moment intercontinental travel, I was giddy with the spirit of spontaneity. Wondering about what lies around the corner became far more liberating than knowing what rests ahead. This was freedom in the truest sense, unfettered by the limits of pragmatism.
In the weeks that followed, I witnessed Europe’s effortless charm by not only seeing the obligatory sights but also by talking with the people. For the first time, I was free to explore the broadness of the world as well as examine what had been the narrowness of my life. I felt that the segue of old-world cobblestone into sleek asphalt reflected my habit of restraint and my newfound abandon: two sides of the same road, joined into one path that paves my journeys, through Europe and through life. From the warmth and kindness of strangers who extended themselves, to exercising my self-reliance and ingenuity, my jaunt abroad left me no longer suffocating, but breathless.
My impromptu adventure created a haven from stress and a window into self-discovery. Kierkegaard once said, “To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself,” and my journey has enabled me to grasp the sense of his words. Mapping a life is impossible, despite my best efforts to do so. Life, in all of its glorious complexity, cannot be truncated to a Google calendar or a “to-do” list. Now, I see a day of possibilities instead of plans. By reclaiming my autonomy, I ultimately reclaimed my joie de vivre. As serendipities and misfortunes come and go without warning, a deviation from the word should brought me to unexpected places that have ultimately changed me for the better.
I didn’t know exactly where I was going, but through wanderlust I found my path. Now I find myself asking ‘why not?’.
The air was that of a stagnant summer, stifling hot and stubbornly unmoving. The dirt road that snaked through the idyllic Taiwanese countryside had rattled the old, blue pickup truck for over an hour before it had shuddered to a stop. Stepping out onto the muddy riverbank, I anticipated the surprise that my eccentric uncle had promised. There it sat: a Styrofoam boat, assembled out of scraps of discarded cups, packing material and blocks. “I made it myself,” he proclaimed proudly, boarding the boat. I followed with trepidation, but it astonishingly supported both his weight and mine with ease. “How?” I asked. He turned to me, his eyes twinkling, and said “Beauty lies in the balance.”
Growing up, I was always fearful of being too ‘American’ in front of my traditional family, or too ‘Taiwanese’ in front of my peers. Whenever I saw my relatives, they would always tease me about being an ‘ABC’ - American-born Chinese - the appearance of an Asian, with none of the cultural heritage. I could not follow the New Year’s traditions since they conflicted with the school calendar. I couldn’t avoid it either, because at the same time, my lunches of radish soup and stir-fried eggplant fascinated my classmates. As a child, I felt as if I had to categorize myself as either Taiwanese or American. Like a trapeze artist, I was swaying over two sides of the same line.
It wasn’t until I learned about the “American Dream” that I gained insight into my definition of self. As I took note of its tenets, I realized my parents were its embodiment. My mother and my father both grew up in abject poverty. My mother’s family ate little but rice every night for fifteen years to pay for her school fees, while my father wrote his assignments faintly since pencil lead was too expensive. The American Dream, for them, was a channel that personified egalitarianism and the possibility of prosperity, in which they could better their circumstances by virtue of sheer effort. I understood then that my identity was not a question of culture, rather, it was a question of character. I could define myself by my own parameters on my own terms. Part of my identity, I decided, was my heritage, one of a purposeful stride toward my potential. Every time I return to Taiwan, back to the family farm and its ramshackle sheds, it serves not only as a proud reminder of the distances one can go with hard work, but also as an anchor to one’s beginnings.
For me, the American Dream has been a philosophy I first inherited and then self-actualized. While my parents took it at face value, I tailored it to fit my own specifications. Instead of cultural labels, my identity pays homage to the optimism and ambition of the American Dream. I adopted a philosophy of diligence and commitment to the future from my parents, while still being rooted in my experiences and relishing the simple pleasures of Styrofoam boats.
After all, beauty lies in the balance.